When Evan Marwell decided to start EducationSuperHighway (ESH), a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing broadband internet access to every U.S. public school classroom, he approached the task with the mentality of a successful serial entrepreneur.
That entrepreneurial mentality is stitched into the fabric of 21st-century America. Thanks to the pace of change in information technology over the last quarter century, we have been conditioned to believe that a single innovative company driven by a visionary entrepreneur can change the world. To many, this notion rings true when you look at companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Uber, among others.
But rather than approach his project solely from the lens of a tech entrepreneur, Marwell realized that bridging the digital divide between those with and without adequate connection to the internet was more than a technology issue. It would require new data, new cross-sector partnerships, changes to federal policy, and teams to help states implement. Marwell needed to be a systems entrepreneur to change the entire system that constrained internet access. (For the record, one of us, Jim, is a backer of ESH and sits on its board.)
Over almost two decades, the social enterprise space has been learning how direct impact and systems change work together. The work our entrepreneurs face today is more complex than ever and requires a set of tools and a framework designed to address the complexity inherent when innovations are integrated into existing systems like school districts, welfare agencies, health departments, and corporate structures.
These insights, and the fact that so many of our systemic social challenges remain intractable, has led us to try to better understand what critical levers need to “pulled” when entrepreneurs are trying to change systems.
The trail to this new approach has been blazed by many extraordinary leaders, some of whom we have funded. These leaders evidence six key characteristics to their approach:
Systems thinking. An individual or organization must first be able to put forward a new solution or set of solutions to a pressing social challenge. This sounds obvious, but we’re suggesting that organizational theories of change, business plans, and other foundational materials need to reflect systems thinking. The most important tool in the new systems entrepreneur’s suite is the ability to embed the solution into the larger system being targeted.
Marwell had a unique ability to see the full scope of the system he was trying to change, and to identify its pressure points. He had two key epiphanies about integrating ESH’s work into the larger education system: First, Governors and state governments held the most important keys to change, and they had to be engaged early and often. And second, with such a big system of 14,000 school districts, expanding fiber networks to reach more people was essential to scaling the solution. This integrated approach to finding a solution for internet connectivity informed the rest of ESH’s strategy.
Research and analysis. Beyond technical understanding of solution X and its application to problem Y, systems entrepreneurs must have a deep understanding of the system or systems they are trying to change and all the factors that shape it. Marwell developed an early “influencer map” that gave him a clear understanding of the players, from the federal government to industry and communities, he would need to engage as partners. He also developed a national diagnostic website called SchoolSpeedTest to create a bigger body of data about the problem of limited internet access, with the support of the Federal Communications Commission and 100 other organizations from across sectors.
Communications. Maintaining transparent and compelling communications both internally among collaborative stakeholders and externally with key audiences is crucial to the success of a systems change effort. Marwell knew that he would need to raise awareness of the problem in order to drive through his solution, so he launched a public awareness campaign around broadband access. So Marwell gathered a list of 50 CEOs – Republicans and Democrats alike – to write the FCC, and organized letters from governors, mayors, and education-technology leaders.
Policy. As difficult as it may be to achieve in the politically polarized time we live in, changing policy is often absolutely critical to changing the underlying system that constrains the social change required. Marwell saw this opportunity early on, and he set his sights on updating the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s “E-Rate” discounted pricing provision, which had been wildly successful bringing internet access to 99% of public schools and libraries, but hadn’t kept pace with internet advances. He leveraged his network and was able to start building his case for change in meetings with FCC and White House officials.
Measurement and evaluation. Distinct from the place-setting research and analysis mentioned above, measurement and evaluation is about creating consistent and ongoing data to guide strategy and increase accountability. ESH constantly worked with partners on measurement–the best example of which is its report on each state’s school-connectivity status. Marwell and his team also pressed the FCC to be more transparent with data about connectivity and pricing.
Marwell and the ESH team have driven extraordinary progress using this approach. They raised tens of millions of dollars from partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Startup:Education. They helped drive reforms in the FCC’s “E-Rate” policy. And since 2013, the share of U.S. school districts with access to 100 kbps connectivity has more than doubled from 30% to 77%.
This progress was possible because Marwell thought about the system he was trying to change as a whole, not about a narrower entrepreneurial opportunity or technical challenge. If more social entrepreneurs hope to effect change, they will need to think the same way.